US won't release bin Laden photo: 'We're not interested in ... trophies.'

Concerns that release of a 'gruesome' bin Laden photo could spark a backlash in the Muslim world won out over a desire to defuse conspiracy theories that Al Qaeda's leader was still alive.

Charles Dharapak/AP
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney tells reporters that President Barack Obama will not release photos of Osama bin Laden's body, on May 4, during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington.

After much back and forth and strong hints from administration officials to the contrary, President Obama has decided not to release photos of a dead Osama bin Laden.

Sensitivities in the Islamic world apparently weighed heavily in the president’s decision. On one side was a desire to answer the mushrooming conspiracy theorists in Muslim countries, who are clamoring for proof of the death of Al Qaeda’s leader. But on the other were concerns that what the White House has admitted are “gruesome” photos could spark harsh reactions across a swath of the world in which the president is hoping to improve relations.

In the end, Mr. Obama opted to avoid enflaming Muslim emotions by offering proof that might not convince all doubters anyway, according to CBS News. Obama discussed his decision in an interview for the CBS program “60 Minutes.”

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“We're not interested in trotting around photos as trophies,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday. “That's not who we are.”

Obama ultimately decided that it was important to avoid releasing photos that could be used as an “incitement to additional violence or as a propaganda tool,” Mr. Carney said.

Explaining why the president felt that the photos could be “inflammatory,” Carney cited “a long history of photographs like that being used to rally opinion” and to turn people like Mr. bin Laden into martyrs.

Obama’s decision not to release the photos of bin Laden’s body followed more than 24 hours of debate that revealed a White House and administration with a surprisingly uncoordinated message on the issue.

On Tuesday top administration officials were stating publicly that it was more a matter of when than if a photo would be released. Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, said the White House was carefully weighing how to offer evidence, and CIA Director Leon Panetta said it was a foregone conclusion that “ultimately a photograph would be presented to the public.”

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But apparently other top officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, opposed the release of photos – which reveal a body shot through the eye with part of the head missing, according to officials who insisted on anonymity – in consideration of the impact such images could have in the Muslim world.

Some officials and a few members of Congress underscored the point that, in the battles with terrorists and Islamist extremists that have followed the 9/11 attacks, the US has deplored as barbaric and disrespectful any photos or videos showing Americans who were killed, whether US soldiers or civilians.

Obama’s decision appears to end the photo debate for now, but not everyone seems to believe that the photos and other evidence of bin Laden’s death will remain concealed forever.

Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, says the administration should “wait days or weeks” before disclosing what “will be a sensational picture.”

“I’d let a little time pass so that we don’t play into the hands of people who want to retaliate,” Senator Levin said outside a classified briefing on the bin Laden mission.

But Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) of Georgia told reporters outside the same briefing that the US is better off controlling the release of information that will get out. “One of these days they’re going to be released,” he said, “it’s a question of whether it be now on our terms or [whether we let] somebody else do it.”

To see what Monitor readers thought Obama should do, click here.

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